TUF: Nations (Zuffa, LLC)The Ultimate Fighter ‘Nations’: Global Reality Show a Compelling Watch for UFC Fans Eric Reinert February 26, 2014 Spotlight Television shows can serve a number of different purposes. Some, like my all-time favorite, The Wire, for example, match masterful storytelling with compelling characters and thought-provoking plotlines that resonate beyond the limits of the screen and try to make viewers look at their world a little differently. Others, like HBO’s current hit Girls, channel with disturbing accuracy the inner turmoil many people feel at certain points in their lives. (Don’t even get me started on the episode this season where Hannah confronts the reality that those who write professionally often lose the passion they once had for more personal work.) Then there’s a third group of shows that serve as pure escapism. Whether these sorts of shows come in the form of pseudo-documentaries about cake decorators from New Jersey or laugh-track-replete sitcoms about scientists who might all have a form of autism, this third group allows viewers to simply turn their minds off, forget about their daily stresses, and indulge themselves in 21 to 44 minutes of simple entertainment. One subset of this third group is the genre of reality television, a fairly recent phenomenon in television where crews film the shows’ subjects as they live their lives/participate in semi-scripted exchanges with one another. While MTV’s The Real World (and its similar offshoots) more or less introduced this style of television (at least to people in my late-20s age cohort), it wasn’t until the end of the 20th Century when competition-based reality shows like Survivor, American Idol and Big Brother really pushed the genre into prominence. Flash forward to 2014, and reality television comprises around half of the programming airing on the major networks. In fact, reality programming accounted for four of 2013’s 10 most-watched shows. These days, to quote Valerie Cherish, reality TV is the reality of TV. It makes sense, then, that the UFC long ago made its own entry into the realm of reality television when it launched The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. Half of the fighters in that inaugural season would go on to relatively successful careers in the UFC. One (light heavyweight winner Forrest Griffin) would battle his way to a UFC title not too many years after participating in one of the most talked-about fights in the company’s history, and another (middleweight runner-up Kenny Florian) would find success in three non-middleweight divisions before becoming one of MMA’s premier analysts and color commentators after hanging up his gloves. The hype generated by this first season (and especially the Griffin/Bonnar dual at its finale) would bring forth a second, where MMA fans were introduced to future light heavyweight champion and perennial top-fiver Rashad Evans, who would emerge victorious in that season’s heavyweight tournament. Subsequent editions would turn previously unknown fighters like Michael Bisping (season three), Matt Serra (season four), Gray Maynard (season five) and John Dodson (season 14) into some of the more recognizable faces in MMA, and would eventually provide a springboard for up-and-coming female fighters as well (season 18, of which half of the participants were female 135ers, and the forthcoming season 20, which will introduce a new women’s strawweight division and ultimately crown the UFC’s first 115-pound champion). Building on the success of the American version of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC decided to outsource the show to other countries and has since produced two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, one edition called The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes which pit a team from the United Kingdom against one from Australia, and the recently completed The Ultimate Fighter: China. Unlike the American versions of TUF, however, these four seasons featuring foreign fighters were not broadcast on cable stateside. Perhaps the UFC was unsure how a group of non-American fighters would resonate with an American audience. Although MMA is basically the same in every country, we Yankees do have a bit of a xenophobic streak when it comes to what we watch. Instead, these seasons aired on networks in the countries from which the fighters originated, and were later made available online to American viewers. This year, the UFC has decided to be a bit more daring and air its latest foreign season of TUF alongside its other programming on Fox Sports 1. On the first edition of The Ultimate Fighter Nations, currently airing on FS1, a team comprised of Canadian fighters squares off against one from Australia. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think I would watch TUF Nations, and would instead bide my time in between the groundbreaking previous season and the forthcoming one featuring teams coached by former lightweight champions B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar. Again, this is probably due to some form of American arrogance, but for some reason I thought that just because neither team featured fighters based in the United States, the action would be less compelling. This was a foolish thought for a number of reasons. Foremost among these is that some of the UFC’s best athletes come from places outside America’s borders, including two of the promotion’s current champions (Renan Barao and Jose Aldo) and a pair of fighters generally considered to be the best of all time (Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre). Beyond that, though, is the fact that one of the most revered MMA teams—the vaunted Tristar gym—is based in Canada, and that country has anecdotally been mentioned as one of the most rabid for MMA. Australia might lack the MMA-related reputation of the United States and Canada, but the nation and its surrounding islands have produced some fearsome fighters. It comes as no surprise, then, that The Ultimate Fighter Nations: Canada vs. Australia has produced a handful of exciting fights and seems to be every bit as entertaining as past, American-based seasons. While the coaching match-ups still remain a heavily promoted aspect of TUF’s American versions, the show has mostly shifted the focus to the show’s actual participants. For TUF Nations, then, it makes little difference that the coaching match-up is between Patrick Cote and Kyle Noke, two respectable UFC veterans, but neither of whom would be considered a welterweight contender. Instead, the show has quickly become just an accented version of what TUF fans have seen before. The stories are just as compelling (Dan Kelly’s family struggles were particularly heart-wrenching), the hijinks are just as frequent (as someone who has spent his whole life in Wisconsin, I can’t imagine the thrill I’d feel seeing snow for the first time) and the fights are just as exciting (Sheldon Westcott’s performance in the most recent episode was as brutal as it was thrilling). If anything, The Ultimate Fighter Nations proves that MMA is not only a truly globalized sport, but one with the sort of competition ideally suited for a reality competition program. Unfortunately, the ratings have not at all kept pace with the show’s previous iterations. Although many of the show’s seasons have averaged between 500,000 and 1 million viewers per episode, TUF Nations has thus far topped out at just less than 400,000 for its fourth segment. Surely, the foreign nature of the show has something to do with this, in addition to other more heavily promoted programming like the Winter Olympics competing with the UFC for eyes. Regardless, though, the UFC seems to be on the right track when it comes to its expansion of the TUF brand. While I doubt we’ll begin seeing foreign-language versions of the show on Fox Sports 1 anytime soon (fighters from other countries are one thing; I don’t think many American fans are going to sit through seasons that are entirely occupied by subtitles), the promotion’s partnership with Fox Sports and the sheer availability of programming space on that network’s properties make it a no-brainer to keep producing and airing seasons of TUF featuring fighters from all over the world. Whether these seasons achieve comparable ratings to past, American-focused editions remains to be seen, but if MMA fans want more content, this is a wonderful way to give it to them.